"Parks and Recreation" and Politics

Amy Poehler's sitcoms caps its fifth season Thursday as a rare place on TV where public service matters.

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, May 1, 2013  |  Updated 6:42 PM EDT
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It's been an eye-opening first year as a city council member for Leslie Knope, the wide-eyed optimism queen of Pawnee, IN, on "Parks and Recreation." 

Leslie hauled trash to help open Pawnee's sanitation department to women, only to get saddled with an impossible-to-budge refrigeration unit. She stopped the shuttering of the town’s art house video store, only to see it go porno. She showed off her mini-golf skills in a bid to save the beloved PPPPP (the Pawnee Palms Public Putt-Putt), only to nearly lose her idealistic soul.
 
In the show’s most recent episode, the relentlessly upbeat Leslie – whose last name may sound like another way to say “no,” but more appropriately rhymes with “hope” – uttered a rare note of disillusionment.
 
"Every once in a while I end up in a situation that makes my stomach queasy," she confided to her mustachioed mentor, meat-loving and government-hating bureaucrat Ron Swanson.
 
If Leslie Knope is getting down on public service, then what hope do Pawnee – and TV – have? Amy Poehler's maturing NBC sitcom ends its fifth and strongest season Thursday as the rare place on the tube where politics isn't a complete cesspool (even if Leslie traded her office bathroom to a fellow pol so he’d agree to extend public pool hours).
 
In recent TV seasons, we’ve seen plenty of high-level political dysfunction (in the comedies, "Veep" and "1600 Penn"), cynical pragmatism (in "The Good Wife"), treachery (in Netflix' "House of Cards") and scandal (in, well, "Scandal"). The stakes, at least on the surface, are lower in Pawnee than in the White House- and statehouse-driven shows.
 
But what we like to call the Audacity of Knope hits home harder – in a corny, yet affecting manner, bubble-wrapped in humor. Waffle-loving Leslie strives to stick to her values and dreams, even if she's learning that compromise and occasional humiliation (tossing her cookies while pushing for a soda tax) are part of the trade-off for progress. Still, politics isn’t all bad: it helped Leslie meet her dream hunk (Vice President Biden) and marry her fellow wonk (former boy mayor Ben Wyatt).
 
We’ll see how much more backroom wheeling-and-dealing Leslie can stomach, while providing belly laughs and the warm feeling engendered by knowing there’s still someone in politics – at least on television – who at least tries to put people and principle first.
 
As anniversary-loving Leslie (“Cheesecake Day” and “Chicken Dance Day,” to name two) prepares to mark her first year in office, check out a preview of the season finale below:

 

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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